The looking glass

Look at yourself right now. Seriously, drop what you’re doing, take off your headphones, get off the computer and walk to a mirror. It won’t take too long. Take a good look. Do you like what you see?

Sure, you’ve got stuff you don’t like about yourself. You weren’t as nice to that one person as you should have been, it didn’t end well, you could have been more honest or upfront or whatever you weren’t doing. You don’t call your family enough. Sometimes, rather than give your best effort at work, you just kind of zone out and hope that nobody notices you’re not working today, at all. You’re grumpy in the mornings. We all have those things. We all have our flaws.

But you think you mean well, don’t you? I mean, you don’t look in the mirror and hate everything you see in those eyes, do you? You have moments of kindness, you have a good heart, you’re just trying to get along and go along. Somebody out there loves you, right? Somebody is rooting for you. Somebody sees the goodness, the generosity, the compassion. Somebody is on your side.

How does it feel when you look into that mirror? Do you have to look away? How long can you keep the gaze?

********************************

I hate fighting with people. I mean, it’s unavoidable sometimes and you just have to, but I can’t stand it. In the movies and on television, when people argue, they speak with one mind, the mind of whoever wrote the words in their mouths, and their arguments are opposite sides of the same coin. They are arguing to come to a common understanding. I believe this. Yes, but I believe this. I support my viewpoint with this piece of anecdotal evidence. I contrast that with this piece. Perhaps you are right. But perhaps I am right. I see your side, and I appreciate that you see mine. I am glad this discourse has occurred. I agree. Let us hug!

Real-life fights are nothing like this. They are messy, chaotic, confused and senseless. They are a tennis match with no lines, boundaries or net. They follow no logic or storyline. They simply involve two people attempting to refute the last statement their opponent made. Punch, counterpunch, punch, with no hope for a knockout. There is no absolution, or mutual understanding. In real life, people are not characters invented by a writer who wants them each to be happy. In real life, each person has their own agenda, created by their own background, values and prejudices. One arguer cannot see another arguer’s position because they are not that person; it’s a game of frustration and one-upmanship. Not only can one person not understand what the other person is thinking, they also can’t understand why they don’t see the situation exactly the way they do. What’s wrong with them?!

They get nasty, and they careen off-track repeatedly, to the point that, by the end, no one remembers what the argument was about in the first place. Not that it matters. In the end, the journey itself has become the battle. In the heat of argumental warfare, most of the damage is done during the argument, not before. Nothing is settled; everything just gets worse. Fighting always bring out the worst in us. And for what? For nothing.

I don’t like myself when I’m arguing either. My voice becomes higher-pitched, like a broadcaster announcing a goal that cost his team the game. I wear my exasperation on my sleeve; the more I talk, the less I want to. I become whiny and petulant. I can’t help it. I hate fights. Most people, when they’re arguing, are attempting to get the other person to understand why they are right and the other person is wrong. I may start off that way too but, in the end, I am just attempting to end the fight as quickly as possible, with minimal bloodletting. These two techniques do not mesh well. I either come across as the spineless half who just lets himself be walked over for the sake of brevity or “peace”, or I just walk away, angry and exasperated, which only makes things worse.

And there is no referee. Imagine a football match with no scoreboard, no overriding authority and no rules: That’s what arguments are like. The only people who can bring about an end to the battle are the participants, which is a recipe for trouble, every time. By the end of the game, half the players are paralysed, the score is still nil-nil and not a second has gone off the clock.

In Annie Hall’s best moment, Woody Allen, after watching a guy behind him in a cinema queue prattle on to his companion about the merits of social commentator Marshall McLuhan, brings out Marshall McLuhan himself to set the record straight. After he does, Woody looks at the camera. “If only life were like this.” Exactly.

But it isn’t. And the battles will always go on.

********************************

Look back at that mirror. At some point in your life, someone has hated that face. Someone has seen in it everything they find wrong with the world. They can’t get inside your head, they can’t see that you mean WELL! That you want everything to be OK!

And you can’t get inside theirs. You can’t understand why they hate that face. You can’t understand why, sometimes, they can’t understand that they’re the one who is wrong.

Every time you take a look, that face appears older. This is how that happens.

And yet, and yet… you probably can’t see how that face can be loved, either. You are too close to it. But that’s the other side, isn’t it? Just like only you can understand how you are feeling, what you’re trying to get across, who you’re trying to be… aren’t you the only one who can never understand what it means to love that face too? Isn’t that worth being hated sometimes? Don’t they go together? Isn’t it better than the face inspiring nothing but antipathy?

Of course it is. So look closer. Take a good look. Now smile. Good. It’ll be all right. It has to be…

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Writer’s lament

Inside of me are words
hopes
dreams
agonies
longing to come out
yet confined to hell
by the rules of another man’s skill.
Who cares how you write
as long as you do.
Who cares what you speak
as long as you try.
Don’t let the pain of confinement
let the words dry up
let them out
if only to live and breathe
as they should…
for you.

Written after a meeting with an editor!

Anything is possible

After my post of March 13 (Making magic), a friend reminded me of this piece I wrote about a year ago, before the inception of the Journeys Into The Night blog. Thought I’d post it here as a sort of companion piece.

 

The lanky teenager takes a step to the right, fakes left, pivots, swings his leg and kicks the ball.

It makes a long, slow arc through the air, its sweep so beautiful, so graceful, a mathematician might take pleasure in graphing it.

His track suit bottoms slung low on his hips, the boy stands frozen for an instant, arms slightly raised, his head bending forward as if to will the ball on to its target.

For a split second, he looks almost like a worshipper in the act of obeisance.

And still the ball flies.

A lone car passes by as the dusk of the evening deepens. Across the street, a woman pushes a pram. Somewhere in the distance a siren wails.

The football hits the inside of the post, drops, and rolls along the goal line. The teen holds his breath. With almost a sigh, the ball kisses the net on the other side as it goes over the line.

“Yesssss!” the boy says quietly, punching the air. He runs forward, grabs the ball and dribbles it back to the half-line.

Suddenly he is not just this boy, but several dozen others in various neighborhoods pulled to football pitches all over the country for a kickabout. They watch their idols on television, then slink silently off, a ball under one arm, to mimic them. It’s their own version of footie fever.

I watch from a distance as he continues playing, whirling and feinting and dribbling around players only he can see, practicing free kicks from outside the box. He’s quick on his feet. A row of houses behind him watches, but silently.

Only later do I learn that he’s a ninth-year student who also likes bikes, dance music and Sprite. He plays for his school team. He’s crazy about football, a fact that goes without saying.

His parents want him to be an engineer or computer programmer, but he wants to play football professionally, and why not? he asks. “I’m already quite good at my age,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, sort of.

Nothing wrong with dreaming, though. Dream on. At 14, your whole life is ahead of you.

Sadly, of course, the odds are against him, which is a shame to even think, because he looks so earnest. Unless he’s a Beckham or a Rooney or Gerrard, chances are he’ll awaken someday and it won’t have happened. That’s the experience most have.

I remember how the obvious struck around my 30th birthday. Wow, I thought, or something like that. A lot of options are now closed to me.

Where anything once was possible, I knew I’d never be a professional athlete or play for Manchester United or be a famous actor. I had never pursued any of those things, you understand. Yet up until a certain age, anything seems possible. Anything.

Right now, out on a vacant playground, this kid is a football star. He plays for his team, Tottenham Hotspurs. He goes on runs down the wing just like Aaron Lennon.

He sweats a lot. His biceps bulge. He has tattoos all over his body. In his mind, I mean.

And so he spins and shoots and scores, visions of Tottenham fresh in his memory. England is next. Like any decent Spurs fan, he despises Arsenal and Chelsea and wishes he could be at White Hart Lane on Wednesday cheering on his team and waving two fingers at the opposing Gunners – but he doesn’t have tickets.

And so he plays. He misses a cross, attempts a back-heel pass. Takes a few throws. His legs are as skinny as Q-tips, but out here they are powerful. He goes up against players like John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.

Yeah! A hattrick! The World Cup beckons!

Anything is possible. Anything.

 

Dreams do come true if you keep believing in yourself. Anything is possible. – Jennifer Capriati

Kill them all!

Ex-boyfriends are loathsome creatures. They are soulless monstrosities, spawns of Lucifer, with fiery tentacles sprouting from their foreheads and coarse, hairy scales blanketing an ember, callous skin. Their minds are black clouds, electric storms sending out noxious currents of malignancy. When they look deep inside, they see a pit of foul nothingness, rancid, rotting nether. They are not exclusive or solitary. They are all worthless faeces, not content to flounder in their own detestable filth, instead spreading their wretched disease to anything they would deign to soil with their wretched presence.

I find it quite astounding that, somewhere out there, I’m actually considered one of them!

I hate them all. I hate the musicians, the footballers, the sensitive art students… I hate the childhood friends who unwittingly grew into something more and the one her parents just loved and it’s-a-shame-it-never-worked-out. I hate the ones with brown hair, blonde hair, ginger hair, floppy hair, short hair, no hair, glasses, contacts, laser surgery, post-grad degrees, stock options, work permits, tattoos, nice eyes, nice shoes, geographic proximity, happy home lives, positive future with this company, ability to laugh amiably at life’s peculiar peccadilloes. I am not specific.

Some in pop psychology would call this the virgin/whore complex. All men want a woman who is a hellion in bed but has never been with anyone but them. That’s shit. How clichéd. It is not that simple. It is not a matter of emotional irrationality. I am not talking about me here, or what goes on in my head. I am talking about the fact that all ex-boyfriends are evil demons who must be vaporised, preferably in a violent, tremendously painful way. (Perhaps ripped apart by wolves, or surgical vivisection without the benefits of anaesthesia. That might be nice.) I give you nothing but facts. I am a writer. I did nothing to facilitate this truth. I simply report it. Please, don’t blame the messenger.

Perhaps they once did something nice. Perhaps they came at the right time in her life, perhaps they transitioned her to the grownup world, perhaps they were sweet and caring and not-the-right-person-but-sweet-nevertheless-and-they-are-wished-well. These are ruses the ex-boyfriend uses to draw you in, to make you feel that they are harmless, that they can be trusted. They are not to be trusted. They are evil. Did I mention the tentacles? I think I did. In case I didn’t, they have tentacles — fiery ones.

Perhaps they even wish you well. Perhaps they are happy she is with someone who cares deeply for her. Perhaps they hang around merely to hold onto a friendship, cherishing what made her special, happy to just have a part in her life. Perhaps they don’t even think about her, except to hope she is happy. Again, more shit. This is how they get you. Their nefarious ways know no bounds.

Out there somewhere, there are ex-girlfriends. They are in my past, no longer applicable to my life, obviously… duh! I am certain they all think of me as the selfless, amiable, spirited imp that I naturally am. I contributed something to them. I made their life appreciably better in some small way. I am a fond memory. This makes me decidedly different from ex-boyfriends.

They are bad. They molest children and dropkick kittens. They ignore Mother’s Day, love Limp Bizkit and often, when no one is looking, commit acts of such carnal degradation that Satan himself would frown in disapproval. I’ve heard rumours that they know goats in the biblical sense and have killed men simply for snoring too loud. These are rumours. You know what they say about rumours. They are to be believed. They are to be accepted as gospel. Retribution shall be ours.

I am not like them. I am pure and intend only well. I have a soul and vitality that cannot be suppressed. Their ilk is not like me. Thank God. Thankfully, I am different. Thankfully, I do not share their vile ways. That I am excluded from them, I feel so fortunate.

Please, take this column not as a bouncy lark, or a whimsical commentary on the state of human interaction. These are serious matters. This is not a time for irony, or humour, or even complacency. Our long national nightmare is not over. If we are not vigilant, they will infiltrate our institutions. They will take over our society and all we hold dear. We simply have no choice. Extermination is our only option. These are not criminals who can be rehabilitated. They are worthless scum, barnacles feasting on our nether regions. We must take them out, without prejudice. It is essential that you, reader, join me in this quest.

I have made it very easy for you. I have compiled a list.

Steve, Andrew, Frank, Scott, Duane, Mike, William, Eric, Tim, Matt, Amir, Alan, James, Chris, Brian, Jamie, Dennis, Sanjay, Ken, Tom, Karl, C.J, Jason, Ryan, Jeff, Ravi, Travis, Kyle, Troy, Robert, Jonathan, Ian, Neil, Patrick, Wayne, Garth, Phil, Paul, Rick, Charles, Tony, Jeremy, and David. Those are, to the best of my calculations, the names of the men who have ever dated anyone I have ever dated. I do recognise that many of these are quite common first names. I have allotted for that. If you come across an individual with any of these monikers, it is imperative that you dispose of them on sight (except the David that is me, of course), by any means necessary. It is possible that you will not be executing the exact right individual. Some of them, I may even call friends. But that is fine. In the face of this menace, certain sacrifices must be made.

In fact, in case I’ve missed a typographical error, it is acceptable to dispatch anyone with a variation on one of these names; say, Bryan rather than Brian. It is also satisfactory to terminate those whose names rhyme with someone on this list, just in case I remembered one incorrectly. If you happen to find a woman with the name of someone on the list, it’s best to do her too; modern surgery can do wonders for those fearing the full brunt of my wrath. Actually, while we’re on that topic, if you could, would it be possible for you to castrate them before they die? If you could take care of that, it would be greatly appreciated.

Join me, my warriors. We are common decency’s last hope.

Hank Moody is my homeboy!

Intelligent, funny, well-written. The dialogue pacing is flawless and the comic timing is spot on. And yes, there’s lots of sex too. But the brilliant Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series Californication is much more than that and it’s such a pity that so many of the reviews and promos have focused mainly on the sex (Did I mention there’s lots of it?).  It doesn’t help either that it’s been buried away on Channel Five here in the UK.

Hank Moody (David Duchovny) is an excellent characterisation of a writer in crisis: struggling with writer’s block and emotionally confused; self-destructing, yet desperately trying to hold it together and make sense of it all.

So what has all this got to do with my blog? Well, Hank blogs too. But more importantly, like Hank, I feel I’m at my best when I’m writing. For a writer, particularly during low moments in life, putting pen to paper is an outlet — sometimes the only one — for releasing the pressure. It’s when I find that I can’t write at all, not even a few words… that I know things are really turning to shit.

Thankfully, that’s not very often — my life is nothing as crazy or fucked up as Hank’s — but any serious writer will be able to identify with the angst, the introspection and, yes, the occasional self-loathing, even as they envy his ability to literally charm the pants off the ladies. I certainly do!

Californication is one of the best comedy-dramas currently on telly. It’s now in its 4th Season, but check out the Season One trailer and clip below:

Making magic

It is staggering to see how much artistic talent there is out there, everywhere, really. Wherever you look, someone is making something, and they’re quite good at it.

A friend of mine works in the financial industry. He spends his days dealing with hedge funds and separately managed accounts. When he leaves the office, he gets together with a colleague and practices with his band, in which they play the keyboards and start the drum machine and sing and dance in front of mostly empty bars. The next day, he slogs back into work and does it all again.

Another guy I know temps. He hops from job to job, a nobody, the guy floating around the office that no one knows. At night, he hits the stand-up comedy circuit, staving off hecklers, constantly trying out new material. He is constantly pushing for that big break, which has to happen, because he’s working so hard. And he is pretty funny.

And don’t get me started on the Web. At the risk of sounding grumpy, everybody’s got a damned blog. It’s their place where they can be who they really are, unvarnished, expressing themselves truthfully and with conviction. Odds are, someone you know has an Internet presence, a place where they can produce and enliven themselves, and you have no idea. There’s some great stuff out there on the Web. You should check them all out.

The most exhilarating part of any creative endeavour is that, essentially, it’s all magic. Whether you’re a tortured artist driven mad by your own genius or just some loser stringing together bad similes about your ex-girlfriend set to awkward acoustical fumblings in an empty pub, you are introducing something new into the world. Before you put pen to paper, or paint to canvas, or fingers to guitar, there was nothing there. You created it. There was emptiness, and you filled it, generating a real tangible thing out of thin air, pulling the rabbit out of your hat. It’s tremendously exciting. And — and here’s where it gets you — addictive. Ruthlessly so.

Because after a while, even if you’re good, you realise it doesn’t pay shit, and it’s a lot of work, and it’s hard and frustrating and totally thankless. You realise that there are a million other kids out there doing the same thing you are, and some of them are better, a lot of them are. And, worst, you realise that you’re growing older, and all the stuff you imagined for yourself, a family, a nice home, Sunday League football with the kids, all that’s creeping up on you. For a while you compromise, and you balance doing what you’re passionate about with what you have to do to survive and lay the groundwork for future happiness. But that line keeps inching up on you, and you find that you’re expressing yourself less and less, that after a full 8-hour workday, which you have to go through to pay your rent and live your life, get out from under your debt, whatever…  you’re just too tired to create, which, after all, at its core, is just more work. Next thing you know, you haven’t written, or painted, or performed, in months. The momentum stops, and you’re just another person working in an office, hoping to beat the traffic home. And before you know it, you’re the guy telling the upstart new kid at work, the one so full of promise and hope and optimism, how you used to write, or paint, or perform, all the time, really, I was quite good, I just didn’t catch my break, you know? Because eventually you do have to stop. As Chris Rock said, no one wants to be the oldest guy in the bar.

This isn’t meant to be depressing. It happens. How could it not? We only have so much time.

Ask your parents. No matter what they do in their lives, whether they’re an electrician or a nurse or a tax collector, I can guarantee you that when they were young, they had some sort of artistic endeavour. Maybe they wrote poems in their diary, maybe they just tore apart cars and put them back together. Do they do it anymore? Is it still a part of their life? Watch their face when they tell you how they used to paint. Watch it light up, then crest into a faint sadness. “That was a long time ago,” they’ll say.

A smart person said once that the worst thing you can say to someone under the age of 30 in London is, “You will never be famous. Let it go.” It’s a cold-blooded, cynical, joyless thing to say, even more so because it’s heartbreakingly true. And when you consider that 99 percent of the time, you’d be absolutely right, well, it makes you want to hide in your room and not try to create anything.

But yet, but yet, you do, we do, we all do. It doesn’t have to end in fame, or money, or sex (though, to be fair, it’s always nice when something ends in sex). Nobody starts doing something because they think it will ultimately provide them worldly pleasures; they do it because they love it, because they must do it.

One friend spends her day trying to help people with mental health problems, many of whom show no appreciation whatsoever for her efforts. It’s a tough and often emotionally-draining job, but in her spare time she leaves that behind and designs handbags. “It’s just my little thing that I do for me,” she says.

Is she wrong? The others above, the ones sneaking in gigs after the stock exchange closes, the ones telling jokes, the ones writing poetry, are they wrong? Are they fooling themselves? Are they wasting their time? Should they stop?

No, no, no, never, never. They are creating magic, every one of them, and that’s something a nice house and matching linens can never replace. I don’t know what’s going to happen to any of them, or to me, but I love them, I love that they still care, I love that it matters. I hope they never, ever stop. I know I don’t plan to. We all have to keep going, while we can.

El: A Love Story

Written March 7, 2011

This is a story about my friend Elena.

We met one night I was out with some mates soon after I had moved from London to Surrey. She was Italian, tall, pretty, funny and smart, so she immediately caught our attention. But there was something inherently aloof about her. She seemed to be silently contemplating mysteries we couldn’t even comprehend while we were distracted by girls and football and girls and girls and girls. It was amazing, really, how quickly she incorporated herself into our friend group. One minute, she was the new girl, and before you knew it, before we even realised what was happening, she was hosting parties at her flat and commenting in her accented, withering, sharp-as-tacks way on the screw-ups and failings of our own aspirations. But she did it a way that was kind; like her infamous mother — shit, like everyone’s infamous mothers — although she was a little younger than most of us, she had a way of dressing you down while still letting you know that it was OK, that she still thought you were the bee’s knees.

She was everywhere, and we were all stunned at how easily she joined every single activity — the drinking games, paintballing, the Three-Curve test (don’t ask), you name it — without a modicum of concern for her social standing. She was single-minded and unrepentant; she was one of our group’s close friends because she said she was, and if it took us a while to catch up to her, well, she was willing to wait. And she didn’t have to wait long.

All the guys secretly had crushes on Elena and the girls were so stunned by her ability to rally the troops and become the pack leader, she was near-worshipped. El (she called me Dee), used to love to make fun of me because I was dating, for a spell, a series of women older than I was and she always said if that if I got my act together, there were plenty of ladies closer to my own age who could have potentially been interested. It wasn’t long before she became our ringleader, our soul, our spirit, our conscience. Whatever plans we ever had were always run through Elena. She was an unstoppable force.

Then she started dating Dickhead. To most, he was known as Mario, a name most unsuitable, as far as I was concerned. Dickhead had always seemed to sum him up for me. Mario was three years younger than most of us, a drummer in a band, and the butt of almost all the jokes from the guys. He also took part in competitive cycle races, something that would have been a most impressive athletic achievement were it not for his propensity to shave his legs. We could never figure out why cyclists did that. Was it to reduce wind resistance? Was it to avoid having hair caught in the spokes? It didn’t really matter; it was grist for our insult mill, and we milked it for all it was worth. To us, Mario was a short, dopey, slightly effeminate little wanker. He hadn’t really done anything to deserve such dissection, but we needed no justification. He was just our mental punching bag.

And Mario, no way was he good enough for El. I mean, she was like a foot taller than he was. But before we knew it, before we could even do anything to stop it, they were together. And they stayed together. Year after year, they remained the solid couple, the unbreakable bond. They even survived a semi-breakup, which culminated in a conversation where Elena told Mario that none of her friends liked him, and he said “What about David?” and she delivered the classic line, “Mario… he calls you Dickhead.”

Their relationship continued when Mario had to return to Italy for his job and El and I, who lived only a couple miles apart, remained the best of friends. She tried to set me up with all her single girlfriends, took me to all her fun music parties, even came along to a few of my football games, and talked about how much she missed Mario. We were inseparable. Some people started thinking we were an item, and there was the expected gossip, but we didn’t care.

One afternoon, I was sitting at home, inexplicably depressed, and El called. “I’m bored. Let’s go see a movie.” We decided on The Departed, headed to London and then walked out of the cinema around 9 p.m. The weather was glorious, one of those rare balmy London summer evenings, and we had a meal, a few drinks and then just walked around until about 1 a.m. talking about the past, and our future, and our friends, and what we wanted out of all of this, anyway. We walked and talked, just two old friends, looking at life, totally unprepared for whatever changes might be creeping perilously just over the hills.

In the autumn, Mario returned to London, and I changed jobs, and El and I just didn’t see each other that often anymore. Then she and Mario got married, in a beautiful Catholic ceremony with the whole gang back together again, me standing up there, so proud, newly respectful of Mario, who seemed a lot tougher and smarter and together than I’d noticed before, and I felt like an arsehole, and they were joined in holy matrimony, and I hugged them both, and then they moved back to Italy and El and I only saw each other on her brief visits to London. Then we sort of lost touch a little. It happens and it’s no fun, but that’s life… and then she called me one night right out of the blue.

“Hi Dee, there’s something I have to tell you.” She sounded fine, almost cheery. Could it be? Mario and Elena had been married for over two years now. Their lives were becoming more settled. El would make an incredible mother. Maybe they’d let me be the crazy godfather! I beamed in anticipation of the news.

“I have cancer.” Oh Christ! No! But it was true. Hodgkin’s Disease. She would be going through chemotherapy and surgery and testing and all that horrible stuff that happens to old people, not people like El. I was so stunned that our conversation lasted only about 30 seconds. I wished her good luck, told her I was so, so sorry, then called up a few of the guys, went out and drank until I forgot my name.

Every time I called for the next few months, Mario would answer in a grave tone, and tell me whether El had the energy to talk or not, usually not. I kept abreast of what was going on, but only Mario and Elena, who quite understandably retreated into their own world, could really understand. She wouldn’t be able to have children. She lost all her hair, she was weak, she was tired. Yet when I talked to her, she was still El, still on my case about something or other, still caustic and a whirling dervish. And Mario was a rock, handling the situation like a man. I don’t know if I ever took the opportunity to apologise to Mario for the years of abuse and belittlement my friends and I heaped upon him, so if I didn’t, I’m sorry. Seriously. We were stupid. You’re a good man. You have my respect. (Dickhead. Hee-hee.)

Sometime, I’m not sure when, maybe around October 2008, El announced that she was pronounced completely clean, the cancer gone. That Christmas, she and Mario hosted a party in London, with all the old gang there. We made fun of James and his new girlfriend, everyone mocked my grey hairs, we watched old videos, we drank and talked all night, like the last few years had only been a week. I took El aside, hugged her and told her how proud I was of her. She smiled and ridiculed me for being so soppy. Then she hugged me back.

I saw her last around November last year. She had a hectic schedule and we only talked briefly over coffee, and we made plans to try to meet up before she went back to Italy. But it was a busy week for both of us, and we didn’t get to see each other. And then this weekend I received another e-mail, addressed to about 20 people.

It had pictures. They were black and white, with a bunch of letters and numbers at the top of them. I couldn’t figure it out at first. And then it dawned on me: These were ultrasound pictures. These were of Mario and Elena’s son. Nineteen weeks in. July 18 is the due date. And right there, in the middle of a London cafe, I broke down in floods of tears. Against the odds, they’d done it. El, a mum! The next time I see her, she will be holding her baby boy.

In a Thank You card she sent me after her wedding, just before returning to Italy, Elena wrote the following: Don’t forget me. I mean, how could you forget me? I’d kill you. This is really mushy and it’s making me sick, so remember this: If I was a guy, I’d want to be you. – El

El, my friend, it’s been over five years since you wrote that, and don’t worry, I’ll never forget you. And if I were a girl, I’d want to be you too. As long as I don’t ever have to have sex with Dickhead.

  • Cristiano David was born on July 17, 2011. I am his godfather!
  • My dear friend Elena passed away on June 14, 2016. Riposa in pace il mio caro amico 😦

is is a story about my friend Elena.

We met one night I was out with some mates soon after I had moved from London to Surrey. She was Italian, tall, pretty, funny and smart, so she immediately caught our attention. But there was something inherently aloof about her. She seemed to be silently contemplating mysteries we couldn’t even comprehend while we were distracted by girls and football and girls and girls and girls. It was amazing, really, how quickly she incorporated herself into our friend group. One minute, she was the new girl, and before you knew it, before we even realised what was happening, she was hosting parties at her flat and commenting in her accented, withering, sharp-as-tacks way on the screw-ups and failings of our own aspirations. But she did it a way that was kind; like her infamous mother — shit, like everyone’s infamous mothers — although she was a little younger than most of us she had a way of dressing you down while still letting you know that it was OK, that she still thought you were the bee’s knees.

She was everywhere, and we were all stunned at how easily she joined every single activity — the drinking games, the “Three-Curve” test, you name it — without a modicum of concern for her social standing. She was single-minded and unrepentant; she was one of our group’s close friends because she said she was, and if it took us a while to catch up to her, well, she was willing to wait. And she didn’t have to wait long.

All the guys secretly had crushes on Elena and the girls were so stunned by her ability to rally the troops and become the pack leader, she was near-worshipped. El (she called me Dee),  used to love to make fun of me because I was dating, for a spell, a series of women older than I was and she always said if that if I got my act together, there were plenty of ladies closer to my own age who could have potentially been interested. It wasn’t long before she became our ringleader, our soul, our spirit, our conscience. Whatever plans we ever had were always run through Elena. She was an unstoppable force.

Then she started dating Dickhead. To most, he was known as Mario, a name most unsuitable, as far as I was concerned. Dickhead had always seemed to sum him up for me. Mario was a year younger than most of us, a drummer in a band, and the butt of almost all the jokes from the guys. He also took part in competitive cycle races, something that would have been a most impressive athletic achievement were it not for his propensity to shave his legs. We could never figure out why cyclists did that. Was it to reduce wind resistance? Was it to avoid having hair caught in the spokes? It didn’t really matter; it was grist for our insult mill, and we milked it for all it was worth. To us, Mario was a short, dopey, slightly effeminate little wanker. He hadn’t really done anything to deserve such dissection, but we needed no justification. He was just our mental punching bag.

And Mario, no way was he good enough for El. I mean, she was like a foot taller than he was. But before we knew it, before we could even do anything to stop it, they were together. And they stayed together. Year after year, they remained the solid couple, the unbreakable bond. They even survived a semi-breakup, which culminated in a conversation where Elena told Mario that none of her friends liked him, and he said “What about David?” and she delivered the classic line, “Mario… he calls you Dickhead.”

Their relationship continued even when Mario had to return to Italy for his job and El and I, who lived only a couple miles apart, remained the best of friends. She tried to set me up with all her single girlfriends, took me to all her fun music parties, even came along to a few of my football games, and talked about how much she missed Mario. We were inseparable. Some people started thinking we were an item, something that (most unusually) I had never even considered, but we didn’t care.

One evening, I was sitting at home, inexplicably lonely and depressed, and El called. “Let’s go see a movie.” We decided on The Departed, headed to London and then walked out of the cinema around 9 p.m. The weather was glorious, one of those rare balmy London summer evenings, and we grabbed some food, had a few drinks and then just walked around until about 1 a.m. talking about the past, and our future, and our friends, and what we wanted out of all of this, anyway. We walked and talked, just two old friends, looking at life, totally unprepared for whatever changes might be creeping perilously just over the hills.

In the autumn, Mario returned to London, and I changed jobs, and El and I just didn’t see each other that often anymore. Then she and Mario got married, in a beautiful Catholic ceremony with the whole gang back together again, me standing up there, so proud, newly respectful of Mario, who seemed a lot tougher and smarter and together than I’d noticed before, and I felt like an arsehole, and they were joined in holy matrimony, and I almost cried, and I hugged them both, and then they moved back to Italy and El and I only saw each other on her brief visits to London. Then we sort of lost touch a little. It happens and it’s no fun, but that’s life… and then she called me one night right out of the blue.

“Hi Dee, there’s something I have to tell you.” Could it be? Mario and Elena had been married for over two years now. Their lives were becoming more settled. El would make an incredible mother. Maybe they’d let me be the crazy godfather! I beamed in anticipation of the news.

“I have cancer.” Oh Christ! Fuck! No! But it was true. Hodgkin’s Disease. She would be going through chemotherapy and surgery and testing and all that horrible stuff that happens to old people, not people like El. I was so stunned that our conversation lasted only about 30 seconds. I wished her good luck, told her I was so, so sorry, then called up a few of the guys, went out and drank until I forgot my name.

Every time I would call for the next few months, Mario would answer in a grave tone, and tell me whether El had the energy to talk or not, usually not. I kept abreast of what was going on, but only Mario and Elena, who quite understandably retreated into their own world, could really understand. She lost all her hair, she was weak, she was tired. Yet when I talked to her, she was still El, still on my case about something or other, still caustic and a whirling dervish. And Mario was a rock, handling the situation like a man. I don’t know if I ever took the opportunity to apologise to Mario for the years of abuse and belittlement my friends and I heaped upon him, so if I didn’t, I’m sorry. Seriously. We were stupid. You’re a good man. You have my respect. (Dickhead. Hee-hee.)

Sometime, I’m not sure when, maybe around October 2008, El announced that she was pronounced completely clean, the cancer gone. That Christmas, she and Mario hosted a party in London, with all the old gang there. We made fun of James and his new girlfriend, everyone mocked my grey hairs, we watched old videos, we drank and talked all night, like the last few years had only been a week. I took El aside, hugged her and told her how proud I was of her. She smiled and ridiculed me for being so soppy. Then she hugged me back.

I saw her last around October last year. She had a hectic schedule and we only talked briefly over coffee, and we made plans to try to meet up before she went back to Italy. But it was a busy week, and we didn’t get to see each other. And then this weekend I received another e-mail from her, addressed to about 30 people.

It had pictures. They were black and white, with a bunch of letters and numbers at the top of them. I couldn’t figure it out at first. And then it dawned on me: These were ultrasound pictures. These were of Mario and Elena’s son. Nineteen weeks in. July 18 is the due date. And right there, in the middle of a London cafe, I broke down. They’d done it. El, a mum! The next time I see her, she will be holding her son.

In a Thank You card she sent me after her wedding, just before returning to Italy, Elena wrote the following: Don’t forget me. I mean, how could you forget me? I’d kill you. This is really mushy and it’s making me sick, so remember this: If I was a guy, I’d want to be you. – El

El, my friend, it’s been over five years since you wrote that, and don’t worry, I’ll never forget you. And if I were a girl, I’d want to be you too. As long as I don’t ever have to have sex with Dickhead.